Charlie Sheen. No two words have ever done so much for so many in so brief a period of time. In fact, with those words at the top, traffic to this blog is likely increasing as you read this. Countless radio programs, television talk and tabloid shows, Web sites, magazines and newspapers have all enjoyed the benefits of his alarming behavior. Has a celebrity at the center of a media firestorm ever done so much to eagerly fan the flames? Have fans ever tossed fuel on the inferno with such unbridled glee? Sheen's self-produced Web casts! The fan-produced videos! The catch phrases! The merchandising! This story may not be bigger than the OJ Simpson double-murder trial, but it is every bit as unsparing in what it is revealing about the media (and those who consume it) today as was the Simpson saga in 1995.
Kids will be kids, haters will be haters, fans will be fans, and so forth. They're empowered today as never before, so the fact that millions are reacting to all things Charlie Sheen with such gusto comes as no surprise. (Just imagine what the world would have been like had the Internet and digital technology been as all-encompassing at the time of the Simpson murders.) Still, I have been fascinated by the rabid enthusiasm with which professional journalists of all stripes have held fast to the Charlie Sheen story as it has played out, from his unfortunate escapade at New York City's Plaza Hotel to Warner Bros. decision to fire him from Two and a Half Men, hungrily devouring every scrap Sheen has tossed their way, then excitingly regurgitating it in the interest of claiming scoop rights as this "breaking story" continues. It seems to me that concern for Sheen's well-being by people who ought to know better – especially professional journalists and other media professionals who are supposed to see through to the heart of a story, no matter how dark – has been minimal.
I don't lay awake nights worrying about the burdens carried by celebrities who make enough money every week to feed entire communities of people, especially when they bring their problems on themselves, as Sheen seems to have done. But from what I see on television and online some general concern is called for, because Sheen is clearly a middle-aged man in a potentially deadly mental and physical health crisis. Did he really have to take to a rooftop, machete in hand and vowing revenge, before people quieted down and whispered, "Holy shit, this is serious," or concerned words to that effect?
The first person of note I heard express anything resembling a thoughtful, human response to Sheen's sorry saga was comedian Howie Mandel, appearing as a guest Monday night with his America's Got Talent co-star Piers Morgan on the latter's CNN talk show.
When Morgan asked Mandel what he thought about "our warped news values," in which Sheen is so dominant in news cycles, Mandel replied, "It's a sad statement on humanity … that we all love a train wreck. I'm a parent, and I look at him and I think this must be torturous for his father and his family and the people who love and care about him and this is horrible for the children."
"You're in television, you're in the business," Mandel said to Morgan. "We have to talk about it and show clips. [The fact that] we're mesmerized by it is kind of a statement of who we are."
"Do you find any of what Charlie's doing funny, in a dark way?" Morgan followed.
Mandel's reply spoke volumes, in that I think it applied to millions of people. "In the beginning I thought it was funny," he admitted. "Now it seems to be getting a little more tragic because I didn't know the extent of his issues and what the problem was. I thought ultimately the two sides would come together and he'd be back on the show and now it's just falling apart. We're watching somebody who could possibly die and that's a horror show. That's not something I really want to be a party to, but here I am talking about it."
I agree with Mandel. It isn't such a stretch to suggest that if someone doesn't help Sheen, and fast, he may die. Early in my career, when I worked as a movie publicist, I spent time with a number of actors and actresses who were caught in self-destructive cycles of substance abuse. They were all much younger then than Sheen is now. Sadly, not all of them are still with us today. One, who recently passed, had been in and out of rehabilitation programs for twenty years at the time of his death. I'm haunted by memories of a great kid who was already in obvious trouble when I met him and who, in my opinion, never had a chance given the specifics of his environment.
Two years after I worked with him this particular actor, whose problems had played out in the media spotlight, appeared one night on a popular late-night talk show and proudly declared that he had beaten his demons and that he was cured because he had been sober for two weeks. Two weeks! The host and the studio audience wildly cheered their approval. I sat home, 3000 miles away, reflecting on my experiences with the actor and thinking that it was wrong to reinforce the idea that one could kick alcohol or drugs in 14 days. And yet, what choice did the host and audience have except to show their support? The greater question was: What was the kid doing on a talk show at so vulnerable a moment to begin with? Like I said, he never had a chance – and that was long before the Internet and Twitter were available to draw millions into his moment by moment drama, with or without his cooperation.
Today I'm wondering if Sheen has a chance. Can the media overkill that he has put in motion be stopped? The specifics here are unprecedented, but the outcome could prove otherwise. What will all the observers who are boosting their profiles at his expense have to say then?